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Bodybuilding is all about mass: building more muscle mass means lifting more mass in the gym. No bones about it, you must train heavy to get huge. Just take a look at the poundage hoisted by some of the sport’s biggest pros, such as Ronnie Coleman, Markus Rühl and Dorian Yates. These guys train hard and heavy and it shows. The irony of training with a lot of mass to put on muscle mass is that it has the opposite effect on joints. Lifting heavy weights actually reduces the mass of cartilage.
Researchers headed by a scientist from Ohio State University (Columbus) have discovered that heavy loading causes cartilage breakdown. Don’t drop those 120-pound dumbbells just yet, though. The good news is that they’ve also discovered how to build the cartilage back up and prevent further breakdown.
The team of scientists discovered that heavy loads — such as weights that prevent you from completing more than eight reps — can cause inflammation in joints that results in cartilage deconstruction and inhibits its reconstruction. Heavy weight seems to affect genes in cartilage cells that cause cell-signaling molecules, called cytokines, to initiate a chain of events that result in the release of chemicals that appear to attack the cartilage. This type of attack is similar to that in arthritis.
If you frequently train heavy and your elbows, knees, hips or shoulders are sore, it may not necessarily be due to a specific training injury. It could be the breakdown of your joint cartilage over time from the heavy pounding your joints sustain. Ask any oldtime bodybuilder who trains heavy about joint pain, and he’ll likely recite a long list of aching joints that he has accumulated over the years.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The problem is that bodybuilders who train heavy and experience a lot of joint pain probably rarely use light weights. A major misconception is that heavy lifting and joint pain are cause and effect. Many bodybuilders and powerlifters just deal with the accompanying joint pain. They reach for glucosamine, chondroitin and fish oil to get relief. Although these are good supplements for joint preservation, trainers should also be reaching for lighter weights from time to time.
The previously mentioned research team also established that training with very light weight (a weight that allows the completion of 15-20 reps) prevented cartilage deconstruction and even enhanced its reconstruction. Most bodybuilders would assume that this works because it gives the joints a break from heavy pounding. That is not the reason.
The scientists found that exercising with light weights reverses the processes that occur when joints are stressed by heavy weights. Light weights seem to inhibit the activation of genes in cartilage cells that cause inflammation and an ensuing attack on cartilage. This prevents the breakdown of cartilage and leads to it being rebuilt.
These findings do not mean that you have to train light all the time. Instead, you should balance every heavy workout with a light workout. In the “Joint Effort” program, train four times a week for two light and two heavy sessions, training each bodypart twice in that week. Workout one is done on Mondays and hits quads, hamstrings and calves, plus back and biceps, with low sets, low reps and heavy weight. Perform two exercises per bodypart and two or three sets per exercise. Think that’s not enough? You’ll be hitting those muscle groups again in just two days. Plus, research shows that, in experienced lifters, performing four to six sets per muscle group is optimal for building strength. The weight you’ll be pushing for this workout should be heavy enough to limit you to five to eight reps per set.
Workout two is on Tuesdays and it’s another low-set, low-rep, heavy-weight workout similar to the first, but this one hits chest, shoulders, traps and triceps.
Workout three is performed on Wednesdays. You’ll use the same exercises for quads, hamstrings, calves, back and biceps as in workout one, but with higher reps and lower weight. Choose poundages that allow you to complete 15-20 reps per set. Stick with the same exercises to ensure that you are stressing the joints in the same way as for the heavy workout. This will provide maximum protection against the earlier heavy workout, keeping your joints healthy so you can continue to train hard for many years.
Workout four, on Thursdays, hits chest, shoulders, traps and triceps, as in workout two — but using light weights and high reps. Then, take three days off to allow your joints to fully recover before you attack them again on Monday and Tuesday with heavy weights. (Continue to work your abs during this program. We suggest that you train abs at the end of the workouts on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but the timing isn’t critical as long as you include them at some point.)
The first two weekly workouts build strength and muscle mass, but at the expense of joint tissue. Heavy weight sets in motion the processes leading to joint cartilage degeneration. The next two workouts of the week offset this effect on the joints and enhance cartilage regeneration. Inserting two light training days immediately after two heavy training days helps to reverse the joint degeneration process as quickly as possible, and this schedule will give your joints enough time for regeneration before the next heavy workout.
High-rep workouts further enhance muscle growth by stimulating the generation of new blood vessels (capillaries). Through the capillaries, oxygen, nutrients and hormones pass from blood into muscle. Increasing the number of capillaries that feed muscles allows for greater delivery of oxygen, nutrients and anabolic hormones to them, resulting in better recovery and muscle growth.
Since you perform the same exercises for two workouts eachweek, you should change your exercise selections every two or three weeks to maintain varietyand avoid stagnation.
If you want to keep pounding heavy iron into your golden years, try the Joint Effort plan. Follow the heavy/light program for eight weeks, then switch to moderate weights (weights that allow you to complete eight to 12 reps) for another eight weeks, increasing the number of exercises (to three to five) and total sets (nine to 20) per bodypart. Split up your training into four or five workouts that complete the entire body and train each muscle group just once per week. After that, return to the heavy and light training patterns of Joint Effort, again choosing exercises that differ from the ones you used the first time through. This strategy is the best way to build muscle mass and protect your joints for the long run.